My champion catch

There hangs on my wall a picture of an ice-fishing scene. I often look at it, as it holds great personal significance. It was a gift from my parishioners at a farewell party held for me when I left my pastorate in Labrador some years ago.

My friend, Jamie, whose name has been changed to protect the guilty, invited our family to join him and his family down at the lake for an overnight ice-fishing expedition. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I was determined to impress my family and friends with the biggest catch ever.

Out on the ice, a considerable distance from the cabin, Jamie and I made two holes. I stood over the hole I had made, my line dangling in the water, and patiently waited for a bite. What seemed like hours passed without a nibble. I felt discouraged.

Jamie walked over to me and helpfully suggested, “Leave the line in place and come back to the cabin for a mug-up.” Never one to ignore good advice and not thinking for a moment that his kind invitation had an ulterior motive, I jumped on his snowmobile with him and left my spot.

Throughout the meal, I said things like “I wonder if I got one yet. What if he’s so big that he breaks my line? What if he pulls it out of the hole and swims away?”

Unnoticed by me, Jamie left the cabin. Shortly after, I heard him shouting in the distance, “Tell Pastor Janes he caught a big one!”

christopher-burton-fish-lab-city

On this trip, my son Christopher and I did catch a fish. Here’s the evidence.

I jumped up from the table and dashed from the cabin. Tearing across the ice to my fish hole, I yelled, “How big is he?”

“He’s some big, Pastor, b’y!”

When I reached my fishing hole, Jamie passed me the line, saying, “Be careful. He’s a big one. Don’t let him get away. Tug gently on the line.”

I tugged on the line – it was taut. This had to be my champion fish.

Stooping down, I peered into the hole. All I could see was the unmistakable colour of a fish, responding only grudgingly to my tugging on the line. Of course, I was screaming and gesticulating by now, to let everybody back at the cabin know I had hooked a monster of a fish.

When I figured I finally had the champion beat out, I slowly began to rein him in. But what resistance I encountered! Then the object came abreast of the hole, but would come up no further. This encouraged me to shout even louder. “Jamie,” I called in panic, “I can’t get the fish up through the hole. Help me, b’y.”

As quick as a flash, he grabbed the line and began tugging at it with determination. Moments later, though, he exclaimed, “Pastor, b’y, the brick is too big to come up through the hole!”

The brick?

I stared at him in disbelief. When I turned toward the shore, there were all my family and friends, standing at the cabin window, laughing that Jamie had gotten me, but good.

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Chewing on the pastor’s sermon

I have most of my teeth, and, at sixty years of age, I am mighty thankful for the molars I still possess. I know enough about teeth to suspect that those I no longer have are wisdom teeth or those at the back of my mouth which proved immune to periodic stints of confectionary consumption early in life.

Whenever I brush my teeth, I am reminded of a story which has circulated in pastoral ministry circles for some years.

A pastor had chosen for the text of his sermon a passage from the Gospel of Luke referring to hell. Approaching the end of his message, he wanted to make an appeal to his listeners to, in his words, “prepare for heaven and escape hell.” He exclaimed, “For the Bible says that in hell ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

A minister is seldom interrupted by a parishioner in the midst of a sermon, but this time proved to be the exception.

“Pasteur!” a male voice suddenly called.

The pastor placed his hand to his glasses and focused on an elderly gentleman sitting at the back of the sanctuary. Rather than stifle the speaker and perhaps create hard feelings, the pastor said, “Yes, Sir, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, Pasteur, you was talkin’ ’bout ’ell h’as a place wid weepin’ an’ gnashin’ o’teet, right?”

“Yes. That’s what the Bible says.”

“Well, Pasteur, dat cain’t work fer h’all o’we.”

“I beg your pardon.”

man-with-few-teeth“Well, wha’ ’bout we poor ol’ people h’ain’t got nar toot h’in h’our ’eads?”

I’ve never heard that one before, the pastor thought, straining to keep a straight face, while his congregation erupted in raucous laughter. How to respond? In one version of the story, he replied, “I’m sure teeth will be provided for such people.”

He struggled unsuccessfully to recapture his congregation’s attention. Eventually, he brought his sermon to a close.

Incidentally, none of his parishioners responded to his appeal to “prepare for heaven and escape hell.”

Selling the professor’s library

In A Brief Autobiography, the Bay Roberts native, Samuel A. B. Mercer (1879-1969), stated that his most interesting article, written for a popular audience, had been “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” published in The Utah Survey in 1913. By attacking the ability of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-44), the founder of Mormonism, to translate Egyptian, Mercer unleashed a storm of controversy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As late as 1958, the so-called “1912 Controversy” was a cause celebre for Mercer and, as late as 1970, an irritant for the Church.

The Episcopal Bishop of Utah, Franklin Spencer Spalding (1865-1914), was, according to his biographer, “the first missionary among the Mormons to make a serious effort to understand Mormonism.” Even Mormons regarded him “as eminently fair and true.” In his pamphlet, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, published in 1912, Spalding attempted “to show by the only original texts that can be tested that Joseph Smith wasn’t a reliable translator of ancient language.”

Spalding consulted a professor at Chicago’s Western Theological Seminary, Samuel Mercer, in his capacity as an Egyptologist. The latter suggested they send to some “of the world’s best Egyptian philologists” the three facsimiles of the original Egyptian text from the Book of Abraham, along with Smith’s partial translation, to test mercers-libraryindependently his ability as a translator. The jury members represented an impressive body of scholarship: Archibald Sayce (1845-1933), Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), Arthur C. Mace (1874-1928), John Peters, Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing (1873-1956). All of them were in practically uniform agreement that the meaning of the facsimiles’ hieroglyphics was completely different from Smith’s translation.

Mercer, in his article, “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” formed his “judgment from the opinion of competent experts.” He blasted the Mormons for believing something that “required only a glance to find out that the interpretation and translation were absolutely wrong in every detail.”

In what can only be described as an ironic twist, in 1956, Mercer, despite his devastating attack on key Mormon documents more than four decades earlier, sold his personal Egyptian library to Brigham Young University!

Harvard University’s librarian, S. Lyman Tyler, knew BYU would respect and utilize Mercer’s Egyptology collection. Informed of the interest, the Newfoundlander decided that BYU would be a suitable home for his material. He seemed determined to permit nobody but the Mormons to have it.

The Mormons agreed to Mercer’s price, which was a mere fraction of what other institutions, including Harvard, had been anxious to pay. The collection was shipped to BYU.

The surprisingly large collection consists almost entirely of books, including a wealth of bound periodicals. Many of the items are now exceedingly rare and valuable. This put BYU in possession of nearly all the Egyptian sources Mercer had used in writing his many books.

Mercer’s library was not kept together as a unit. Fortunately, shelf lists were made as the books were being catalogued, and a label, identifying its provenance, was placed in each volume. This list was microfilmed in 1957. By late 1991, the Mercer collection was located in a single building, and was in the process of being re-catalogued and redistributed under headings such as History, Religion, Philology and Geography. Plans were underway to bring the entire collection together in one room.

BYU professor, Hugh Nibley (1910-2005), subsequently spent hundreds of hours among Mercer’s books. There are no personal papers, but Nibley felt the human touch was nevertheless present in comments Mercer had made on his books. His countless penciled annotations are a good indication of what he was doing and thinking. Nibley acknowledged in 1990 that he felt inclined to take it easy on Mercer, in view of the great favour he had done for the Mormons. In his personal dealings with Mercer, Nibley found him to be kind and unfailingly courteous. Dealing with him was a pleasure. In 1968, a year before Mercer died, Nibley wished him well.

An unusual song request

Soon after Dad graduated from Bible school in Toronto in 1947, he assumed the pastorate of a church in Ontario. As his first charge, it was an ideal opportunity for him to put into practice the things he had learned. At the same time, he would learn many lessons he had not been taught. One such lesson revolved around a parishioner’s unusual song request.

One Sunday morning, Dad asked his congregation, “Does anyone have a favourite hymn or chorus you’d like for us to sing?” Such requests were not unusual in public meetings. Congregants would respond with various titles. The choices were limitless, and Dad thought he was ready for almost any selection. It might be “Amazing Grace,” an all-time favourite, or “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Near the Cross,” Just As I Am,” or any number of others.

A lady timidly raised her hand.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Dad said, looking in her direction. “What is your selection?”

“Pastor,” she began, “can we sing that wonderful little chorus, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?” Dad was taken aback. “It’s been going over in my mind all week,” she continued, “and I’d like for the congregation to sing it. It would really bless me.”

Thinking he had misheard her, Dad said, “Pardon?”

She repeated her request, “‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ pastor, if you don’t mind. That’s what I’d like for us to sing.”

mary-lambDad had spent four years in Bible school preparing for this? Appealing to his congregation for favourite hymns or choruses, he had been thinking in terms of selections chosen from the hymnal, not nursery rhymes! Not that he didn’t know “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for he recalled it very well from his childhood. But as for being a parishioner’s choice of a chorus to be sung in a church service, well, it just didn’t seem appropriate. A litany of questions flashed into his mind, Where’s the spiritual content? How does it relate to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Church, to heaven? No, he decided, it doesn’t fit the bill. But how to handle the sincere woman’s unusual request?

Ever the suave one, Dad responded politely, “Thank you for your selection, Ma’am. But I don’t think it would be appropriate right now.”

Dad eventually left Ontario for his Newfoundland home, married, had four children, and spent his entire professional life pastoring in the province. He often told this story to his children, to their keen delight.

I often asked him what the woman in his first church must have been thinking when she had made such an unusual request. Dad didn’t have a definitive answer, but over time we concocted a reasonable scenario.

The nursery rhyme makes repeated reference to a “Mary.” Well, wasn’t the mother of Jesus also named Mary? A not insignificant detail. The rhyme also makes equal reference to a “lamb.” Ah-ah, we thought upon reflection. The New Testament refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” Suddenly, it made sense in a reverse sort of way. “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” A clear reference to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and his mother, Mary! How else could she have understood the nursery rhyme?

How often Sherry and I regaled our young children with this nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb, / Little lamb, little lamb. / Mary had a little lamb, / Its fleece was white as snow.”

At one point, I even added my own stanza, “Mary had a little lamb, / Its feet were black as tar. / It followed her to school d’day, / Gonna do it agin d’mar!” Apparently I wasn’t concerned about grammar at the time.

For some reason, my original stanza was never incorporated into the original composition.

Meanwhile, we as a family never cease to laugh whenever anyone mentions this unforgettable nursery rhyme.

Bibliomania

I’m afflicted with a condition known as bibliomania.

A syndicated book columnist, Nicholas A. Basbanes, describes a person who suffers from this curious malady as being “mad about books.”

Guilty as charged. Books are the bane of my existence. My home office, not to mention our house, both upstairs and downstairs, is awash in books. Those volumes that have been unable to find a resting place in shelves take up residence in almost every available nook and cranny.

My late father before me, himself a connoisseur of good books, left me his. I put his tomes on my bottom shelves. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the water in our basement rose six inches, most of his books were damaged beyond repair. However, I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdidn’t break the news to him. He died in ignorance of the fate of his cherished books.

Others before my father and I have suffered from the same affliction, some worse than others.

Winston S. Churchill understood well the intimate attachment individuals have to books.

He suggests that, if you’re unable to read your books, “at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another.

“Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are.

“If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintance. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

My condition is less severe than Churchill’s.

Some books hold greater personal significance than others. High on the list are author-signed books, usually more valuable than unsigned copies.

Few of the books in my library hold author signatures.

However, I have a signed, first edition of I Chose Canada, the memories of Joey Smallwood. I also have a signed and numbered (#31) edition of 100 copies of a pre-publication press run of Harold Horwood’s Joey: The Life and Political Times of Joey Smallwood.

While I’m proud of those volumes, my greatest pride is reserved for inscription volumes. The author takes his time to inscribe his book to someone. In the wild and wacky world of used and rare books, such books are usually valuable.

One of the books my father gave me is Ten-Minute Talks on All Sorts of Topics, written by Elihu Burritt in 1874.

An American philanthropist and social activist, he was born in New Britain, Connecticut, in 1810. He died there 69 years later.

My copy of Burritt’s book holds a distinctive and intriguing inscription: “To Thomas Hardy Esq. A slight remembrance from America.”

Perhaps the English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), is better known than Burritt. Who can forget Hardy’s masterful Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles?

I desperately want to believe the inscription is directed at this Thomas Hardy, but I cannot be sure at this late remove.

There is in Great Britain a society devoted to Thomas Hardy. Its aim is to promote his works for both education and enjoyment. It even has its own scholarly publications, The Hardy Society Journal and The Thomas Hardy Journal.

I emailed the secretary, Mike Nixon, about any known connection between Burritt and Hardy.

To my disappointment, he responded, “Having consulted a number of colleagues, we all feel there was no connection between the author Thomas Hardy and Elihu Burritt.”

I then emailed Nixon a scan of the inscription. After showing it around to his Hardy Council colleagues, he responded again: “Sadly we are still of the same opinion. It does not relate to our Hardy.”

I suspect that only a bibliomaniac can enter into the feeling of disappointment such a response brings.

Today I discovered there’s actually a medical condition known as bibliomania. Treatment for this form of obsessive compulsive disorder includes, among other things, psychotherapy, meditation and relaxation, hypnotherapy, cingulotomy and deep brain stimulation.

Yikes!

Note to wife: In case you’re wondering about what to get me as a gift, why not buy me a book or two? There are still a few spots in our house devoid of books.

‘There is no place like the outports’

Recently, a friend gave me some letters, removed from a dwelling which was being dismantled.

The letters speak of an earlier time … 1941. The one I am quoting from is dated 28 August.

It’s written by a young man – let’s call him Tom – who had left his Coley’s Point home to work in Grand Falls.

That evening, he sat in his apartment on Pine Avenue and wrote his mother. With a good command of language, Tom was obviously an able commentator.

The paper is mildewed with age. The smell of mould is all-pervasive as I read. The careful handwriting has faded with time, but it’s still decipherable.

Today’s reader is, in effect, able to sit behind Tom’s shoulder as he wrote, reading about the things that were on the mind of a son away from home.

letter“I received your most welcome letter,” Tom began somewhat formally.

“I am well, and glad to hear ye are the same….

“I am not working this evening, as it’s showery.”

He asked to congratulate those back home who had passed in school.

He inquired about a certain girl, wondering if she had passed, as well. I wonder, Who was she? His sister? Girlfriend? The possibilities are both endless and intriguing.

“Did any of the Grade Eight Class fail?”

Tom admitted, “I haven’t got my mind made up yet as to what I am going to go at. I don’t see anything that I could do, except that I go to summer school next year and go teaching for a while.”

He had a humourous streak: “I will have to do something before I forget what I do know.” He could have added an exclamation point.

He realized it was “no use stopping there because it is like throwing money away.”

Meanwhile, he also realized he would “have to wait until I come home and see what is best to do.”

The day before, he had received a letter from Pop. His father or grandfather? We don’t know. Tom planned to respond on Sunday.

He missed home. “I would like to be home now,” he admitted, “to go out in the boat sometimes fishing. There is no place like the outports.”

He informed his mother he “got a suit of clothes the other night. It cost a good bit, but it was the best I could do. There are two pairs of pants. Of course, it was not my doings. It got to stand me a good while now.”

Tom again mulled over his future. “I wouldn’t mind if I had to go to school another year,” he wrote, “because when I am finished school, there is no stop at all. You have to be working all the time.”

He asked about another young lady, wondering if she “got a school yet.” Who was she?

“I guess if I had stayed home,” Tom admitted ruefully, “I would have made almost so much (money) as I will down here.”

Board was costly. “It would be alright if I didn’t have to pay so much for board,” he complained good-naturedly. “That spoils it all. Anyway so I pay off what I owe this summer is all I care.”

His mother had spoken to her son about rubber taps.

“Well,” he responded, “I don’t think you need bother about that. So I was thinking about getting some leather in here and tapping my shoes. I think they have a last over to Gillette’s.”

Tom’s mother had sent him a parcel, but it hadn’t arrived. “The shipping bill for it is come, but we cannot find the parcel.”

Tom had to condemn his old shoes; indeed, he was now wearing a pair belonging to somebody else. He hoped to receive the parcel the next day.

“By what you said on your letter,” he wrote, “you had the storm Sunday harder than we had it. The lightening was terrible heavy, but we had no thunder worthwhile, and that was distant. I was out in all the lightening because when I came home it was all over. We didn’t have any rain with it.”

The end of August was at hand. “Summer will be over,” Tom added sadly. “It seems only a very short time since we were going to school, and now it is time to go again.

“Well, I think I have told you just about all the news for this time. So I think I must close.”

Tom wanted to be remembered to various individuals.

“With love, your affectionate son.”

I wonder, What became of Tom? Did he eventually come home for good? What course did he choose for his life? Did he become a teacher?

We are left wondering.